Monday, April 14, 2008

The nakedly rationalizing ape

Desmond Morris did us no favors.

This post is mostly pasted from a comment I left at Pandagon. I suspect what most moves me to say something is what I see as a painful disconnect. On one hand it strikes me as desperately important to have an operational understanding of human nature instead of a pocket full of inconsistent rules of thumb and a lot of shoulder-shrugging "what can you do since were so crazy anyway?" attitudes: we know most of our troubles on this planet trace to our own impulses. On the other hand really smart people in cognitive and behavior research like Chris who regularly makes fine sushi out of the raw fishiness of MSM's botched psychology coverage in his posts at Mixing Memory or just generally smart people like Amanda dismiss evolutionary psychology faster than they would a smelly bum crashing a posh wedding.

Amanda assenting to an comment contemptuous of EP:
But fair enough, there’s a just-so-story bullshit aura about evo psych that makes it a sort of godless religion.
Chris wishing someone would provide a better debunking of EP:
That is a shame, because we could use a good book that discusses the many problems with Evolutionary Psychology that can be read by non-psychologists.

So I talk back to the Pandagonians:

Y’all are giving Evolutionary Psych a not entirely deserved drubbing.

The worst problem with the study of how any of our tropisms, proclivities and generally our demonstrated mental baggage and tools might have been selected for through the usual mechanism of survival advantage is that too many people pounce on ostensible findings as justifications for actions rather than explanations. As justifications, some EP results [or more typically their misrepresentations and popularizations] sure look like convenient detours around normal ethical objections to simple self gratification. But as explanations, they may help us to understand why some of us misbehave or do unethical things to others…and that can help us both in the legal and the correctional aspects of building in preventions to violation and cleaning up after violations. Everyone here is getting exercised over bad justifications. The scientists are not trying to justify but to understand and explain.

The second worst thing about EP is how tentative its findings are compared to how firmly some will count those results as law of nature. The complexity of the brain and the thousand twists of influencing conditions lost to us in the dust of a few million years of history mean most of the progress in EP research must begin largely as speculation and proceed by many careful and redundant paths of experiment and observation before a sound conclusion can be announced. Its results will seldom have unquestionable and unambiguous interpretation in the manner that the rules and patterns we derive in mathematics or physics do. The quality of the answers comes from the rationality and the rigor of the study but popular usage seems to lack both. Some researchers may get accused of going into their study already armed with an answer to be found but it is certain their readers often make that mistake.

Is it a “godless religion”? Only if it is used as justification for actions that would not pass ethical critique in the larger world…but that describes both the godful and the godless religions.

I have to say that Chris is generally a very clueful writer, his analytical side aided nicely by a sense of humor. I may yet discover his knocks on EP aim for a discipline less given to misapplication by the backward rabble.

And perhaps I should be careful about what I wish for. A psychological understanding powerful enough to provide some government a technique by which to rein in the dozen little personal domains of decision wherein we collectively ratchet our resources out of existence sounds profoundly scary. If the "wise" psychology I pine for did or could exist, who would use it?


etbnc said...

It bugs me when potentially useful fields of study get hijacked by the someone's bad personal behaviors. I wrote a post or two along those lines myself, recently.

But Gary Marcus, a psychology researcher at NYU, offers one of the most careful syntheses of the varying viewpoints that I've encountered so far. He comments briefly on this in a conversation at the Blogging Heads web site.

The bit most relevant to this post starts around minute 33. You should be able to skip ahead. I think it's worth listening to the whole thing, though, when you have time.

I'll be interested to find out if you interpret his comments the way I do.


GreenSmile said...

Thanks. I will give it a listen.